If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps his promise to recognize the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is threatening to bring down his government.
Let’s hope both keep their word.
Aryeh Deri, the convicted felon who heads Shas, wants to derail the government’s plan to establish a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall where Jewish men and women can worship together.
“It’s not acceptable that the government makes these kind of decisions,” said Deri, who went to prison for bribery and corruption the last time he held his current post, minister of the interior.
“We won’t sit in a government that recognizes the Reform, not over the Western Wall, not for marriage and not for divorce,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 and reported in The Jerusalem Post.
The plan was approved in the cabinet in January over the objections of Shas and other ultra-Orthodox or haredi lawmakers. Now Deri is threatening to quit the coalition, which has only a one-seat majority.
Shas holds seven and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) six. UTJ wants the agreement revoked but is not threatening to quit because its leaders say that would give the Reform movement “pleasure.”
Deri’s predecessor at Shas earlier said if egalitarian prayer is permitted at the Wall, “the next thing we’ll see is [Reform Jews] putting tefillin on dogs and calling them up to the Torah.”
Shas has used similar threats for many years, usually getting bought off by the then-prime minister. It has a reputation for extortion and corruption, selling its votes to the highest bidder in return for meeting its religious control and financial demands.
If Deri goes ahead with his threat and Netanyahu doesn’t capitulate – and the latter is a giant “if” – it would be very good news for the millions of Israelis and Diaspora Jews who think this prime minister has led Israel too far to the Right and been too subservient to the ultra-religious establishment.
I hope Netanyahu finds the courage to just say no to the extortionists.
New elections could allow the Israeli people to elect a government that is more representative and better suited to stem the drift of so many young and progressive Jews away from an Israel that has alienated them by the disproportionate influence of the extremists.
But that happy result will also depend on having a viable, united opposition – something long missing in the Jewish state.
Shas, UTJ and other haredi lawmakers are pushing legislation to void a 2013 High Court ruling allowing Women of the Wall organization to pray from the Torah at the main Wall plaza. The January compromise between the government, non-Orthodox denominations and Women of the Wall provides a 900-square-meter egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Wall.
Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay of Shas has refused to sign the regulations approved by the government, saying it would be a grave sin to recognize those strains of Judaism.
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said egalitarian prayer is “desecration” of the holy site and causes “spiritual damage beyond imagination.”
Related legislation by haredi Knesset members would ban Reform Jews from using public mikvehs.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), an opponent of the Kotel plan, said, “Reform Jews in the US are a dying world.”
Netanyahu said he “reject[s]” such “disparaging and divisive remarks” and added, “Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect. This is the government’s policy. This is my policy.”
Unfortunately, what Netanyahu says is policy and what he practices can often be two different things.
(See: peace negotiations.) UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler condemned Netanyahu’s meeting last month with the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement. He called it “a stab in the heart of true Judaism.”
The rabbis are “the heads of the movements that caused terrible assimilation and the annihilation of millions of Jews in the Diaspora, and whose singular goal is always to undermine true Judaism,” he said.
Israel’s chief rabbinate said in a statement that those non-Orthodox movements “do not believe in the foundations of the Jewish faith” and “have no connection to original Judaism.”
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi, this week instructed religious Jews to prevent their children from coming into contact with secular or merely traditionally Jewish family members for fear of contamination by exposure to their lifestyles.
The chief rabbinate is a taxpayer funded organization that is essentially declaring some 80 percent of Israeli Jews are untouchables.
The institution is an arcane leftover from the Ottoman Empire – with the British Mandate’s later bifurcation into Sephardi and Ashkenazi sections – that does not belong in a modern democracy of 6.3 million Jews. It represents a small minority of the population yet dominates areas like marriage, divorce, burial, conversion and kosher certification as well as aspects of public transportation, entertainment, commerce, education and too much more.
Governments of both the Right and Left have effectively surrendered governmental authority to this unelected religious dictatorship.
As a result, we Americans have much greater freedom of religion as Jews than our brethren in Israel.
Haredim make up 12% of Israeli Jews and another 10% consider themselves religious, 35% identify as traditional and 43% secular, according to Israeli government statistics. The Pew Research Center, in a 2013 survey, found 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox, 18% Conservative and 35% Reform. The remainder follow another stream or have no denomination.
Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institutions in Jerusalem, wrote that many Orthodox Jews and rabbis in Israel now agree with what Conservative and Reform rabbis have been saying for years: “the chief rabbinate is doing an excellent job of driving Jews away from Judaism.”
Netanyahu speaks often of his role as a leader of the world’s Jews, a theme he’ll no doubt repeat when he speaks next week to the AIPAC policy conference, but will he defend the diversity of the Jewish people or surrender to the demands of the powerful but small ultra-religious minority.
He has a chance to act like the leader he claims to be and not just the tool of religious and nationalist extremists, but his record and his determination to stay in power at any cost offer scant reasons for hope that he will do the right thing.